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Pierre Berton

Pierre Berton bust in Whitehorse, Yukon. © Alan G. Luke

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“My best advice to writers is to get yourself born in an interesting place.” — Pierre Berton 

A popular and prolific author, the Canadian iconoclast infused our country with considerable insight and interest in the golden era of the Klondike. This year is the centennial of the birth of Pierre Berton, born in Whitehorse, Yukon, in the summer of 1920. 

One year after his birth, his family moved with him to the town of Dawson City (1921‐32). Nearly 20 per cent of Berton’s 50 books published featured the Klondike Gold Rush. His stories document greed, courage and fool hardiness in his non‐fiction narratives. These were evidently influenced by his upbringing in the region. 

In The Great Klondike Gold Rush, Berton conveys stories of the prospectors, the gold seekers and the mineral that drove them mad. He identifies the Klondike veterans (Sourdoughs) and newcomers the (Cheeckakos). 

In Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush (1896 99), Berton introduces a cast of characters such as Silent Sam Bonnifield, Swiftwater Bill Gates and Soapy Smith through their tales. With a dramatically authentic historical backdrop we meet heroes and villains, as well as paupers turned millionaires in this rugged Canadian frontier. 

When the word of the Klondike gold discovery became known worldwide by the summer of 1897, it initiated a seemingly interminable influx of future fortune hunters. Berton depicts this in his novel, Bonanza Gold: The Great Klondike Gold Rush (1991). Pierre Berton chronicles the arduous trek along mountainous trails over indomitable terrain. In 1897, the steamer Portland transported two tonnes of pure Klondike gold reflecting the substantial yield the region reaped. Adventurers and “wannabe” miners converged in the Klondike Valley. From dreamers and desperados to dance hall girls and dead horses, all are covered amid the gold mania. 

One‐time dance hall girl, Kate Rockwell (1873‐1957), gained fame for her notoriety due to her flirtatious dancing prowess. She became a member of the Savoy Theatrical Company in Dawson City. Her act was so popular with the miners that she received the stage moniker, “Klondike Kate”. 

Berton referred to the aforementioned “Klondike Kate” in Klondike, however he did not mention the genuine Northern frontier heroine, “Klondike Kate” Ryan (1869‐1932), her contemporary. She was a former nurse, restaurant manager and became the first female Special Constable in the North West Mounted Police. One may drop by Klondike Kate’s Restaurant today for some sustenance or partake in a walking tour of downtown Dawson with a costumed actor named Kate. 

In his six‐book series aimed at children, stories of foolishness, courage and greed are highlighted. The Klondike Stampede (1991) is a non‐fiction narrative focusing on the people who ventured into the Yukon hoping to strike it rich during the summer of 1897 and beyond. In The Golden Trail: The Story of the Klondike Rush, there is a vivid depiction of what occurred during 1896 and the frenzy that ensued after the gold rush and the golden quest thereof. There was a painstaking process of prospectors working claims. Panning and sluicing for nuggets there were fortunes won and lost on the streets and in the saloons of boomtown Dawson City. 

Berton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film based on his novel, City of Gold (1957). He provided the narration describing Dawson during the heyday of the Klondike Gold Rush. 

Pierre Berton was the founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. This non‐profit literary organization seeks to encourage our country’s writing community. Known as the “writers’ block” in Dawson City. Berton’s residence is on the same corner as the former homes of fellow scribes, Robert Service and Jack London. 

For decades he was a perennial celebrity on television with the TV series (1960‐61), Klondike based on his book Klondike Fever. He was a panelist on the long‐running TV staple, Front Page Challenge (1957‐95) that focused on current events and history. He also had a good run on his namesake show Pierre Berton Show (1962‐73), hosted My Country (1975) and The Great Debate (1974‐83). 

Pierre Berton received 13 honorary degrees in recognition of his work as a writer and historian; received 30 literary awards; was a recipient of the prestigious Order of Canada (1974) and became a Canada’s Walk of Fame inductee in 1998. 

A bronze bust of Berton was unveiled on Main Street in downtown Whitehorse in 2016. The sculpture depicts his signature sideburns and trademark bow tie. An accompanying plaque indicates that during his formative years as a youth in Dawson, his work experience in the Klondike gold fields and dredges became a catalyst for his future literary endeavours. 

Pierre Berton was a genuinely impressive nationalist, journalist and radio and TV host who possessed a great sense of humour as reflected by his appearance on The Mercer Report which aired in 2004, the same year the octogenarian succumbed. Considered one of the coolest cultural characters in Canada, his literary legacy will perpetually prevail as a prominent part of Canadiana. 

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VIAAlan G. Luke
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